The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, Cory Doctorow & Karl Schroeder

Alpha, 2000, 360 pages, C$25.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863918-9

One of the most unlikely publishing trends of the nineties has been the Dummies’ Guide to… series of books, along with the inevitable knock-offs, such as -surprise- the Complete Idiot’s Guide to…. Using a voluntarily provocative title as a hook for a series of excellent reference works, the publishers of these two series have moved away from the obvious computer training manuals to delve into subjects we might not have expected from dummies guides.

Publishing Science-Fiction is one of those unlikely subjects. Few would be prompt to categorize idiots as a prime demographic for writing SF—though the jury is still out on Star Trek readers. Delve beyond the silly title, however, and you’ll find the best book on the market to teach, as it says, how to publish Science-Fiction.

Rising Canadian SF superstars Cory Doctorow (2000 Campbell Prize Winner) and Karl Schroeder (Ventus, The Claus Effect, etc.) have put together a step-by-step guide to writing SF where the only ingredient missing is determination. This Guide starts with an introduction to the genre, of course, then moves on to the essential mechanics and techniques of SF writing. The authors don’t try to teach how to write as much as they highlight the differences between SF and other types of literature. As could be expected from a general guide, their explanations are limpid and eminently accessible.

But the Guide doesn’t stop there. Once the stories are written, the hard part begins: they have to be sold! It’s no accident is this is a guide to publishing rather than writing SF: Doctorow and Schroeder spend more than half the book discussing how to build a professional SF-writing career, from the initial story sales to fiscal considerations whenever a significant fraction of your income comes from book royalties. While this will probably annoy any “true artist” in the crowd, very few resources actually deal with material considerations for budding authors.

Through it all, the Guide really represents a cause for minor astonishment at market forces: Given such a niche market fed by only a few hundred authors, who could have contemplated a market for a book on how to become a pro SF writer?

This being said, it’s not as if only budding writers will benefit from reading the Guide. By lucidly explaining the mechanics and distinctions of SF, Doctorow and Schroeder have also allowed the rest of us a glimpse at the hidden engines of modern Science Fiction. For instance, their discussion of SF character-building [Chapter 11] -and the embodiment of SF themes in events rather than characters-, will be enlightening to fans and critics of the field by explaining why SF works like it does. The first part of the guide, which introduces SF to the masses, is also invaluable in providing a succinct, but thorough overview of the field. Naturally, the glimpse in the dirty mechanics of the SF publishing industry will also help any avid fan to understand the market forces driving the field.

The Guide is a reference book that knows how to grow with its owner. While most will initially pay more attention to the earlier parts, the latter sections of the book -on self-promotion, awards and contracts- become more important as the writer matures in his chosen profession.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the book is a delight to read from start to finish, thanks to its efficient structure and the accessible style of the authors. Good fun, even if it doesn’t directly concern you.

In short there isn’t a lot to dislike about the Guide. While already occasionally dated barely a year after release (Please note that the accompanying web site has moved to http://www.kschroeder.com/guide/ ), most of its advice will remain effective for a long time. Check it out at the local library if it sounds interesting to you, and definitely consider buying it if you think you want to be a pro SF writer.

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